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Firefighters Brace for More Santa Anas

Crews at three blazes fight to quell hot spots. Officials fear winds could cause flare-ups.

October 03, 2005|Jia-Rui Chong and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

With another round of Santa Ana winds forecast for Tuesday, firefighters raced to fully contain burning areas of Southern California on Sunday so the gusts could not stir up more flames.

"We have to try to get this buttoned up and get the door closed," Kelley Gouette, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he told firefighters battling the Topanga fire Sunday morning.

Last week's Santa Anas drove three fast-moving brush fires, scorching thousands of acres and dropping white ash on streets and playgrounds along the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, in Burbank and in San Bernardino County.

By Sunday afternoon, the Topanga fire, the biggest of the three, had burned about 24,200 acres around the Ventura and Los Angeles county line and destroyed three houses and three commercial buildings. It began Wednesday under strong winds; the cause is under investigation.

Officials said Sunday that the fire was about 65% contained and, if the current weather held, expected full containment by this evening.

Gouette, who is overseeing operations at a staging area in Thousand Oaks, said conditions looked good when he arrived on the scene at 5:30 a.m. The cool air and 60% humidity helped keep some of the fire risk down.

But he was determined to tamp down remaining hot spots before the winds kick up again.

"The 1991 Oakland Hills fire that killed [more than] 20 people was the result of a fire they thought they put out the day before," Gouette said. "That fire department didn't mop up completely. Then the wind surfaced."

With that in mind, fire officials dispatched helicopters with infrared instruments to map hot spots. They found only a few, including a smoky area around the northeast corner of the fire near the Rocketdyne facility west of Chatsworth.

Where the fire still burned, crews broke up logs and other debris and squirted water and foam. Throughout the day, bulldozers dug new lines around the outline of the fire, and hand crews fortified existing fire lines, clearing brush 100 feet into burned areas and wetting down a wide area.

Firefighters in Burbank, meanwhile, were trying to kill the remains of the Harvard fire -- informally called the Castaway fire for a nearby restaurant -- which had burned 1,091 acres by late Sunday.

The fire started Thursday, and its cause also is under investigation. By Sunday afternoon, the blaze was 70% contained, said Capt. Ron Bell of the Burbank Fire Department.

"Looking down from the command post, it's all black, no flames," said Bell from the parking lot of the restaurant. The Fire Department allowed 70 evacuated residents to return home Sunday morning.

But Bell still worried about Tuesday's anticipated winds, which will probably be dry and hot, though not expected to exceed 30 mph. They would be perfect to fan smoldering areas that firefighters might not see.

"It's like your fireplace log," Bell said. "It looks dark, but you turn it over the next morning and it has hot coals on the bottom."

For this reason, crews planned to dig 100 feet into the burned areas looking for what Bell called "smokers."

"We're looking for something like a yucca plant, which is like a pineapple," he said. "It can roll into a green area and start this up again."

The Castaway restaurant, which is separated from the burn line by a golf fairway, closed when the fire started, though some wedding banquets were allowed to take place. On Sunday, the restaurant reopened.

In San Bernardino County, where the Thurman fire had blackened about 935 acres, crews continued to drop water from helicopters into canyon areas that were hard for firefighters to get into, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Pam Bierce.

Officials also dispatched 13 helicopters to douse the fire's most worrisome edge -- a canyon south of Angelus Oaks that's too narrow for airplanes and too steep for ground crews to hike all the way down.

The blaze was 72% contained Sunday, and residents in three San Bernardino National Forest hamlets were allowed to return to their homes.

The Thurman fire prompted authorities last week to evacuate more than 1,700 homes in five communities along scenic Highway 38, though no structures have burned.

Angelus Oaks, Seven Oaks and Barton Flats residents were told Sunday they could return; Forest Falls and Mountain Home Village residents started trickling back Saturday night.

"There's no smoke at all. After ash falling for a few days, it's nice to see a clear blue sky," said Cathy Berens, who owns a restaurant in Angelus Oaks that has been feeding fire crews.

Berens manned empty counters at her place, the Oaks, restless for regulars to once again drop in for morning coffee.

"We're anxious for everything to get back to normal. There's no one here," she said.

The community of 360 homes was emptied Thursday night, several hours after a semi truck's tire exploded and ignited nearby brush.

The fire's size more than doubled Friday, eating thick chaparral that hadn't burned in decades. Officials estimate its cost at nearly $2.7 million.

High humidity over the weekend helped more than 1,200 firefighters subdue flames inching northeast toward the town. The number of firefighters was cut to about 840 Sunday night, with officials expecting nearly 100% humidity after dark.

Like those on the Topanga and Harvard fires, crews on the Thurman fire spent Sunday preparing for Santa Anas.

Jeff Wenger, spokesman for the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department, said, "If Mother Nature wants to blow as hard as she wants, we want the lines to hold."

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